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Backroads Of Japan


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Our trip combines hiking ancient pilgrimage trails with visits to modern cities. The traditional, family run inns we stay at are a definite highlight. No wonder it is our most popular Japan itinerary


Arrive Tokyo

On arrival you will need to make your own way to the group hotel. We will have an important tour briefing at approximately 6.00pm, so please check with reception for the exact time and location. Following the meeting your guide will take you to a local restaurant (meal is at own cost) followed by an optional night tour, typically to Shinjuku and/or Shibuya, to sample Tokyo’s neon lights (transport is at own cost). First impressions of the industrial outer suburbs of Tokyo - a seemingly endless display of concrete and elevated highways - give little clue about the natural pleasures of coming days. Tokyo is a hive of activity, with a mind-boggling range of shops, restaurants and businesses that make it one of the world’s most energetic cities. The train is quite an experience, particularly during peak hours where the standard practice is to squeeze as many people possible into each carriage! And Japan does not need to be expensive. The following is a small suggestion for places that you can enjoy for free - the Imperial Palace East Garden; Ryogoku Fireworks Museum; Sumo Museum and the Beer Museum Ebisu.Overnight: Sunroute Asakusa or similar

Explore Tokyo, to Fuji Five Lakes

After breakfast we head off to explore a small part of this incredible city. We begin with a subway trip to the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market (closed Sunday). This fish market is the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world and also one of the largest wholesale food markets of any kind. This market is located in Tsukiji, central Tokyo, and is more commonly known as the Tsukiji market. From the fish market we continue to Tokyo's downtown area near Sumida River where we visit Sensoji Temple - the oldest temple in Tokyo, and walk through Nakamise shopping street which is lined with stores from the Edo period (1603 - 1867). In the early afternoon we will collect our bags before we travel by train to the bus station for our journey to Lake Kawaguchi at the base of Mount Fuji (approx 3 hours). Lake Kawaguchi is located in the centre of Fujigoko (Fuji Five Lakes) and is famous for its spectacular views of Mt Fuji from its northern shore. If we are lucky we may get to see the mountain in its full glory, however Mt Fuji is notoriously shy, and is prone to swift changing winds and temperature fluctuations so there is no guarantee that it will show itself through the ever-changing cloud cover that often shroud it. If time and weather allows, we will start exploring the area with a short introduction walk along the shores of Lake Kawaguchi.Overnight: Route Inn Kawaguchiko or similar

Hiking around Mt Fuji

After breakfast, we will head out for today’s guided hike. Your guide will select the best trail for the group. This might be a trail at the base of Mount Fuji or climbing one of the lower mountains in the area. Ideally, Mount Fuji will show itself (weather permitting) for excellent photo opportunities of Japan’s most sacred mountain. Mt Fuji stands at a height of 3776m and the average temperature at the summit is between 4.8°- 5.8° C (40.5° - 42.5° F) during the summer months of July and August. The official season for climbers is July and August and it takes about 6 hours from the 5th station to the summit.Considered a sacred mountain during the Edo period, Mt Fuji is still climbed by worshipers. The afternoon is free time (non guided) but your guide will help advise you on best places to visit and how to get there. There are many local attractions to visit including hot springs, temples and shrines, quirky museums such as the Kawaguchiko Kinohana Art Museum or the Kawaguchiko Music Forest Museum. Alternatively you may wish to hike around the shores of one of the smaller nearby lakes or rent a bicycle to venture further.Hiking: ~4.5km (1½hrs) or ~12km (4hrs) dependent on groupOvernight: Route Inn Kawaguchiko or similar

Travel to Kiso Valley

A series of train and bus journeys through the morning will get us to Tsumago, one of the historic mountain-bound towns of Kiso, an historic trade route through a thick-forested valley. Our base in Tsumago, is a town preserved more or less as it stood in the 18th century. Kiso Valley, in the southwestern part of Nagano, is the most mountainous prefecture located in Central Japan. Surrounded by the Central Alps to the east and the North Alps to the west, the deep valley formed by the Kiso River is filled with the fragrance of woodland trees.After settling in at our traditional ryokan accommodati,on we'll set out on foot to explore this charming old town on the historic Nakasendo Highway. The old Nakasendo Road was completed in the Edo period as a trunk road between Kyoto and Tokyo. The day ends at a traditional-style inn where you will enjoy a feast of seasonal dishes.Note: For group sizes of seven travellers and more, private vehicles will be used instead of public transport. This morning you will need to pack a small overnight bag. Your main luggage will be sent to the accommodation in Kyoto.Overnight: Hanaya ryokan or similar

Old Nakasendo Highway, train to Kyoto

We spend the morning hiking along the ancient Nakasendo Way which connects the old capital Kyoto, to the new capital, Tokyo. Magome and Tsumago, the southernmost post towns have single main streets that are lined with shops selling traditional foods and local crafted goods, chiefly wood and lacquer. They are an architectural fantasy in timber. In the afternoon we travel by train, descending through the Central Alps to Nagoya, where we will change to the Shinkansen (bullet train) bound for Kyoto. With temples and teahouses, shrines and geisha, Kyoto is Japan’s cultural heart. From the end of the Nara Period (794) Kyoto has functioned as the crossroads of Japanese history. Kyoto, which was Japan’s capital for more than 1000 years, is a veritable open air museum. All over the city you can find countless shrines, temples, palaces and other historical sites which are best discovered by foot. Our first evening in the historic downtown streets of the former capital will include a guided walk through the famous Geisha district of Gion which was originally developed in the Middle Ages, in front of Yasaka Shrine. The district was built to accommodate the needs of travellers and visitors to the shrine. It eventually evolved to become one of the most exclusive and well-known geisha districts in all of Japan.Hiking: ~8km (3hrs)Overnight: The Palace Side Hotel or similar

Visiting Kyoto’s Temples

There is a great deal to see by day in Kyoto, and the content of our days here may be re-shuffled to optimise weather conditions and local events from the busy communal calendar of festivities.The highlights of today’s guided tour will be visiting at least two of the Kyoto’s many Buddhist temples. Your guide will suggest temples, possibly some of the temples tucked into the range of hills containing the city on its east side. The day will also include a walk though the city centre. By evening you will have enjoyed an orientation of this city.Overnight: The Palace Side Hotel or similar

Climb Mount Daimonji

The low lying plains and river scenery of the Kyoto Basin have been the stage for some of the most edifying and poignant episodes in Japanese lore. A guided climb to the lookout atop the mountain known colloquially as Daimonji will give us a bird’s eye view of history. The hike up the mountain takes about 60 minutes and is well worth the effort. Part of the East Mountains, Daimonji-yama offers the most accessible and expansive view of the city. It is so high that on a clear day the skyscrapers of distant Osaka can be seen. For those who prefer to stay at base level, there is the option of walking along the Philosophers’ Path by yourself. The rest of the day will be occupied with sightseeing based on personal preferences as not everyone will have the same list of must-do activities. While this is not guided, your leader will be pleased to assist you and point you directly to the sites that will give you the most pleasure. Why not visit Heian Shrine built to commemorate Kyoto’s founding, Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion), or even try your hand at a cooking class, join a traditional tea ceremony or dress like a Geisha (please notify your guide beforehand as these activities need to be pre-booked).Hiking: ~2km (2hrs)Overnight: The Palace Side Hotel or similar

In Kyoto free exploration

Essentially a free day for you (non guided), today you will have the opportunity to explore this fascinating city at your own pace. You may want to catch up on some shopping, write some postcards, or just reflect on the experience of recent days by the bank of the Kamo River. By this stage you may be feeling the urge to inhale the meditative atmosphere of Kyoto’s Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in the privacy of your own thoughts or explore nearby Nara (day-trip out of Kyoto).About 42km south of Kyoto, Nara was the old capital of Japan (710-784) and was the cradle of arts, crafts and literature. Buddhism first flourished here under the strong patronage of successive Emperors and walking through the quiet streets is like walking through the pages of history.Overnight: The Palace Side Hotel or similar

Hike & Train to Asuka

Following an early breakfast we board our train to the Nara Basin (our main luggage will be forwarded to Dorogawa). Gradually leaving suburbia behind, we can now look forward to the next couple of days of our walking adventure. In the 6th Century the first mainland Asian-style capitals of Japan emerged here, and between them ran the country’s oldest transit route - the Yamanobe Road. In the subsequent centuries the power centre moved elsewhere and the area simply de-urbanised into a rural zone of small-hold agriculture. Most of today will be spent weaving through farms, rice paddies and bamboo groves at the foot of sacred Mount Miwa. In the late afternoon we will travel by public transport to the next valley to the south. We end the day in Asuka, one of the most romantic sites in Japanese history.Asuka is a small region in Nara prefecture (about 25 kilometers south of Nara City) which had a pivotal role in Japanese history. Lending its name to the Asuka Period (538-710), the region was the site of Japan's first capitals from where the early Japanese national character emerged. A few monuments of that period remain, but the area is now mostly fields and rural villages. Note: this morning you will need to pack a small bag for our walk for the next 2 nights. Your main luggage will be sent to the accommodation in Dorogawa (day 11).Hiking: ~16km (5hrs)Overnight: Minshuku Wakimoto or similar

Hike to Yoshino

In the morning we will walk through the historic Asuka region, along trails connecting mysterious domed tomb mounds and several of Japan’s oldest temples.The remnants of the Asuka Period that remain today are mostly limited to stone monuments and archaeological excavations. Burial tombs such as the Ishibutai Tomb or the Takamatsuzuka Tomb are preserved in their original state, while artefacts and recreations are on display at local museums like the Asuka Museum, or the Complex of Manyo Culture. In the afternoon we will transfer by train and shuttle bus to mountainous Yoshino. For over a millennium Yoshina was a major way station along the pilgrim’s trail into Omine (Great Peak) and since 2004 it has enjoyed UNESCO World Heritage status. If time allows, we will explore the many small shops in Yoshino Town, or visit Zaodo Temple, base of Japan’s mountain ascetic monks. A dinner feast will fortify us for tomorrow’s hike. Hike: ~6km (3hrs)Overnight: Kam Kam ryokan or similar

Hike & Bus to Dorogawa

The trail we follow out of Yoshino today weaves through mountains thick with cherry trees, and as we climb higher these mix with fir, pine, and cedar. We will stop to rest at wayside shrines and panoramic mountain passes as we follow a famous pilgrim trail to Omine. From here the scenery changes as we pass through farmlands on our way to Kurotaki before travelling by bus to Dorogawa.Dorogawa is a secluded area famous for its sweet spring water and traditional herb and fungus medicines. The village is beautiful with interesting scenic points such as Ryusenji Temple with its bright red maple trees and a waterfall to where pilgrims cleanse before visiting the sacred mountain of Omine.Our accommodation in Dorogawa boasts an onsen, a naturally heated thermal bath, a great way to relax after our walk.Hiking: ~12km (4hrs)Overnight: Hanaya Tokubei ryokan or similar

Hiking around Dorogawa

Today we explore the riverside trails and mountain passes surrounding the village of Dorogawa. Your tour leader will choose a route to walk depending on the weather conditions and season and you are welcome to join him or her, or explore on your own. For those wishing simply to spend the day relaxing, there is the luxury of observing the slow pace of the day in a country town.Overnight: Hanaya Tokubei ryokan or similar

Mitarai Gorge, travel to Osaka

Following a river this picturesque walk through Mitarai gorge takes us up somesteep stairs and across a few suspension bridges. During early summer the gorge is a mass of bright green leaves which change to various shades of red and yellow with the on set of autumn. Arriving at the junction of Kawai, we have a bento lunch (traditional Japanese lunchbox) and then take the bus to Shimoichiguchi station then on to Osaka city. The Kansai metropolitan area, which includes Osaka, has a population that exceeds 20 million, making it one of the largest metropolises in the world. The city of Osaka was first incorporated in 1889 and has become known as the food capital of the world and this port city has had a history of a flourishing economy in part due to trade and travel made possible by its sea and river routes. On arrival at our hotel in Osaka we have time to freshen up before a guided orientation of this exciting city. Osaka can boast some of the most exuberant nightlife in Japan - a walk through the Dotonbori neon light area certainly won’t disappoint. Note: this morning you will need to pack a day bag. Your main luggage will be sent to the accommodation in Osaka.Hiking: ~4.5km (1½hrs)Overnight: Shin-Osaka Esaka Tokyu REI Hotel or similar

In Osaka

Early this morning we will explore some of the sights in Osaka’s Shinsaibashi area, for example Kuromon market - a 580m long market for fish, fruit, vegetables and other foods which has been open since the mid-Taisho period (1912-1926) – or Sennichimae Doguya-Suji, a narrow street with many shops dealing in equipment and utensils used in restaurant and coffee shops. Restaurant owners come here to buy plastic models of dishes used to display their menus in the window. These miniature food imitations are a great souvenir. The afternoon is free time (not guided) to discover Osaka on your own. There is so much to see and do in this city, for example the Museum of Oriental Ceramics, with its extensive collection of Korean and Japanese ceramics, or the Floating Garden Observatory. If you have any special interests your guide will be able to give you recommendations. This evening we will meet for a final farewell dinner to celebrate the end of a fabulous trip.Overnight: Shin-Osaka Esaka Tokyu REI Hotel or similar

In Osaka, trip concludes

The trip concludes today after breakfast. For those travelling to the Kansai International Airport the journey takes approximately 90mins. From Osaka to Tokyo Narita International Airport, takes the best part of six hours.

Additional Information

You may not have considered it, but Japan is a superb walking destination. Fly over Japan and you will see that the entire archipelago is mountainous except for a narrow strip of coastal shelf, a few broad inland basins and some river valleys. Those flatter lands are where the bulk of the population lives. The mountains – the main terrain of this tour - are surprisingly unpopulated. From a distance it may seem that the old Samurai-and-Geisha traditions have given way to the mechanical marvels of consumer culture, but come closer and you will find a society shaped by deeply ingrained values, with many living traditions. This walking tour of Japan wanders around the cultural barrier and into territory that Japanese hold sacred. Accompanied by expert leaders, you will hike through places of natural beauty and hinterland sites of deep significance. The itinerary is interspersed with interesting urban explorations. It begins with a brief immersion into the maze of Tokyo, before heading into the countryside to gaze at the nation’s symbol, Mount Fuji from a suitable ringside seat: the top of one of its surrounding hills. Travelling by train and bus we head to the Kiso Valley and hike along an historic trail, the legendary trade route which connected the Sea of Japan with the Pacific Ocean.Japan’s original Buddhist monks proved their faith on this trail in the 7th century, when the mainland religion found its place among the esoteric native Shinto. Between these hinterland adventures are a few special days in Kyoto the “Florence of Japan” due to its endless fine art treasures, unique sense of identity, and walk-friendly environment. Keeping to the backroads theme we have discrete opportunities to experience temple gardens, peerless Buddhist arts and architecture and the bohemian street culture of the ancient capital. Our Japanese walking based journey ends in another throbbing metropolis - Osaka, a mercantile Mecca. At every step of the way craft and cuisine will round out your Japanese experience, with encounters with locals adding a memorable human dimension.

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